February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
A Classic Riddle of the Sea From an Absorbing New Book
Early in the afternoon of December 4, 1872, at a point about midway between the Azores and Portugal, the Nova Scotian brigantine Dei Gratia was proceeding on a southeasterly course when her master, David Reed Morehouse, sighted a sailing ship on his port bow, to windward. Through a glass he perceived that she was another brigantine, beating northwest under very short canvas. As the gap between the ships narrowed, he was unable to make out any people on the stranger. He ordered a boat lowered and sent first mate Oliver Deveau, with second mate John Wright and a seaman, to investigate.
Rowing up to the silent ship, the men read the name Mary Celeste on her bow, and on reaching her, Deveau and Wright clambered onto her deck. The investigators soon confirmed that there was not a soul on board. The brigantine’s one boat was gone. Both her fore and lazaretto hatches were uncovered, and her hold, containing hundreds of wooden barrels marked “alcohol,” held water to the depth of three and a half feet. The ship’s jib and foretop staysail were set, but the foresail and upper fore-topsail had been blown away, the lower fore-topsail was flapping loose, and the main staysail lay sprawled atop the forward house; all the other sails were furled.
More interesting to Deveau and Wright than the disorder wrought by the elements were the many evidences of human order to be seen. The captain’s chronometer and sextant, the navigation book, and the ship’s register were missing, but the log book lay on the desk in the mate’s cabin and the log slate, or running log, on the cabin table; the final entry on the latter gave the Celeste ’s position at 8 A.M. , November 25, as six miles northeast of Santa Maria, easternmost of the Azores. The ship’s stores contained provisions for six months and ample drinking water. In the seamen’s quarters forward, and by the berths amidships, occupied until recently by the Celeste ’s cook and two mates, were sea chests packed with clothes. The captain’s cabin likewise contained clothing, stowed in boxes and hanging from hooks, including, besides masculine attire, dresses, a pair of woman’s overshoes, and “articles of child’s wearing apparel; also child’s toys.” A melodeon stood opposite the captain’s bed, which had been slept in—by a child, Deveau guessed. Under the bed Deveau found a sheathed sword with faint discolorations on its blade.
At the end of half an hour the Dei Gratia ’s mates returned to their ship. Captain Morehouse was particularly concerned about the fate of the Mary Celeste ’s people since her master, Benjamin Briggs, was a friend: indeed, Morehouse may have dined with Captain Briggs and his pretty wife at New York’s Astor House the night before they and their two-year-old daughter Sophia started to sea on November 7.
Mate Deveau proposed that he sail the derelict to Gibraltar, and Morehouse, spurred by the prospect of salvage money, detailed two seamen to go with the mate. That evening the Mary Celeste ’s skeleton crew pumped her dry, set her sails, and got under way: The Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on the evening of December 12, and the Mary Celeste the following morning.
On December 18 the vice-admiralty court met at Gibraltar to consider Captain Morehouse’s claim for a salvage award. The queen’s proctor, acting as attorney for the Crown, promptly convinced himself that the Mary Celeste ’s crew had broken into the alcohol below decks and gotten drunk, murdered the Briggses and the chief mate, and escaped in the boat. This picture of foul play accorded oddly, however, with Captain Briggs’s reputation as a firm but fair master, or with the near certainty that, having his wife and child on board, he would have made sure that his crew included only men of upright character. A survey of the 1,701 barrels of alcohol in the Celeste ’s hold, moreover, showed that none had been tampered with, while chemical tests would establish that the supposed bloodstains on Briggs’s sword were, in reality, nothing of the sort.
It was not until February, 1873, that the court released the Celeste to proceed to Genoa and so earn her freight at last. In March the court rendered judgment, awarding £1,700 to the Dei Gratia ’s master and crew as salvors. By then, lingering hopes that the Celeste ’s people might still turn up were fading.
But why had those people abandoned a vessel “fit to go round the world,” in the words of a seaman who helped sail her to Gibraltar, for a small boat affording no protection from the elements and little enough from the sea itself? The court had no answers.
Eleven years later an English magazine published an anonymous short story based loosely on the discovery of the derelict Celeste . A well-written if barely credible tale of wholesale murder for motives of racial vengeance, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” included several embellishments that were absorbed into the evolving legend of the vessel, notably the spelling of her name as Marie Celeste and the circumstance of her “boats”—two of them—being neatly slung in their davits. [In 1892 the story’s author was revealed to be Arthur Conan Doyle.]
Other romancers added their own improvements to the story: thus, in one frequently repeated version, the derelict was encountered sailing under a full spread of canvas, and the Dei Gratia ’s boarding party found a partly consumed breakfast on the cabin table, including cups of tea that were still lukewarm . Authors variously conjectured that the Celeste ’s people had been carried off by a giant octopus and by pirates; that Captain Briggs, overcome by religious mania, had butchered his family and everyone else before flinging himself into the sea; that fumes from a submarine volcanic eruption had driven the ship’s company mad with thirst, causing them to jump overboard.
Further errors and inventions proliferated until 1942, seventy years after the event, when, by coincidence, two American writers laid out all the known facts in two carefully researched books: George S. Bryan’s Mystery Ship: The Mary Celeste in Fancy and in Fact and Charles Edey Fay’s Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship .
That the Celeste ’s people perished there can be no doubt. As to why they abandoned her, the best published authorities, Messrs. Bryan and Fay, incline to the theory of Dr. Oliver Cobb, a younger cousin of both Captain Briggs and Mrs. Briggs. Dr. Cobb ascribed the captain’s sudden alarm to the threat of explosion posed by fumes of alcohol that had escaped from the porous red-oak barrels and been warmed by the surrounding waters while being confined in the hold. Did these gases rumble menacingly, as Captain Morehouse believed? Or did spontaneous combustion occur, blowing off the fore hatch cover, as the Celeste ’s then principal owner, Captain J. H. Winchester, afterward maintained? Dr. Cobb could not say. He felt certain, however, that the presence of Mrs. Briggs and Sophia had hastened the captain’s decision to remove everybody.
According to Dr. Cobb’s hypothesis, Captain Briggs ordered the light sails furled and the mainsail lowered, then had the vessel hove to on the starboard tack. The ship’s boat was lowered; simultaneously, the main peak halyard, an inch-thick rope, was readied for use as a towline, one end being left attached to the gaff and the other bent on the boat’s painter. Gathering up chronometer, sextant, and ship’s papers, Captain Briggs ordered everyone into the boat and followed them; they cast off, and within a minute or so the ten people were well astern of the ship, linked to it by four hundred feet of slack halyard and falling rapidly farther astern. All at once a strong northerly breeze unexpectedly filled the Celeste ’s square sail; the halyard leaped out of the water to snap taut, and as the ship gathered headway the straining line parted—and the little boat was adrift.
No doubt the men rowed desperately, trying to overtake the ship, but it was hopeless: in no more than an hour or so the Celeste , a fast sailer, was out of sight.
She drifted on, mile after mile, encountered a squall and lost her foresail and upper fore-topsail. After no one can say how long, she came about to head west and shipped a sea, water cascading into her forward house and cabin and pouring into the hold through the open fore hatch. Hours or days later she again came about and headed east, only, in time, to reverse course once more. When the Dei Gratia met her, she was holding a reasonably straight course northwest by north.
But whether or not the foregoing scenario describes what actually happened will never be known. More than a century later the disappearance of the eight men, woman, and little girl in the Mary Celeste remains, as an American naval officer who inspected the derelict at Gibraltar wrote, a “sad and silent mystery of the sea,” the most baffling of all and one of the most poignant.